To say that Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America is an inventive work of fiction is like calling the ocean a tad salty.
Damien Lincoln Ober's debut novel, published by Equus Press, takes the shape of a series of 56 vignettes about every single one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, at the moment of his death.
That in and of itself would be an impressive level of literary gimmickry for a work of historical fiction. However, the last words of the men who for all intents and purposes invented America is just the beginning.
It seems that a swift and terrible plague known as "The Death" is sweeping through the colonies and killing two out of every three people. Though no one knows for certain how the disease is spreading, the doctors racing from signer to signer to stop the devastation suspect the Internet is to blame. Yes, that Internet.
"When panicked reports started circulating that The Death was being spread by the Internet, Americans everywhere rushed out of the Cloud never to return."
In Ober's America, John Morton is the man responsible for uploading the Articles of Confederation, tapping them out on his laptop minutes before The Death gets him, but not before updating his status. This "epigraph" from Thomas Jefferson indicates the tone of the novel:
"th@ all r cre8d =; th@ they r endowed by their cre8or with certn inalienable rights; th@ among these r life, librty and the purst of happiness."
The easiest way to pigeonhole Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America is to call it a work of counterfactual fiction—a story that takes the facts as we know them (the names of the signers) and mixes up a few things (Internet plague). In other words, Ober has written a "What if?" story for the ages.
Yes, people still ride on horseback and sail on sailing ships in this version of America, but, like us, they never leave home without their smart phones, and Ober offers all kinds of clever commentary regarding the way we live now.
Consider Caesar Rodney's sister who cannot imagine love without the Internet and is willing to risk The Death for a chance at romance the moment after her brother expires. "And she presses the laptop's power button and waits. Swears, then, that she can feel something unraveling in the air. As if the layers of this and a separate, untapped reality have started to mix. She flexes her fingers over the keys, watches the screen come to life."
Usually, speculative tales of this nature change one of two things (What if Hitler escaped Nazi Germany in a U-boat?) and explore the permutations, but Ober keeps introducing new wrinkles.
For instance, when the Internet is abandoned, a new Internet (called "Newnet") is created. This gives rise to a social-media platform called "Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America," which is subsequently shortened to "Franklin's Dream" and then simply "The Dream." The Dream becomes so popular that many Americans spend all their time there, altogether abandoning the real. Thanks to online gaming, this is something a portion of the population already does, and as more and more of our lives migrate online (TV, music, work), a not insignificant portion of our lives is spent looking at screens.
For all of the technological advances Ober's given his patriots, they still spend a lot of time waiting for uploads, battling ad bots and being harassed by search drones—a mixture of old-world inconveniences and the specter of threats to come. Take this "conversation" Thomas Stone has with a search drone:
"Stone's never seen a search drone sneak in the last word. But this one does. 'Next time you come, I won't be here anymore. Humans don't have access to something, does it still exist?" And then the search drone is gone, dissipated into code. Fucking old Internet."
Ober has much more than snarky search drones up his sleeve. As the last of the signers expire, the doctors expose a global conspiracy that would throw all of human history into the trash heap and should make some readers very nervous about a potential Ebola pandemic.
Ober's mix of heady ideas and gorgeous prose make this a uniquely compelling debut. Doctor Benjamin Franklin's Dream America is nothing less than an alternate history of the birth of the United States that hints at our coming demise.